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Monday, September 14, 2015

On Wolf Hall and Bringing All Your Equipment on the Bus

Suppose within each book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives.
Let's talk about me in junior high and high school. Did you know me? Was I a hot mess? I remember being a hot mess. I have memories of being that awful age and I just burn with shame. Like, I had friends, but how? My only explanation is twofold: the first being that we were all dumb and so I, being no dumber than the next, seemed to hang in there. The second is that teenagers are so self-absorbed that often they didn't even know there was another person there half the time, let alone what I was doing. The third option, and the one that I worry about to this day, is that I was universally reviled but tolerated out of pity.

Let's be clear here, I did not have a ton of friends. Well, maybe I did. The kids on Saved By The Bell are supposed to be the most popular kids in school and yet each of them had four friends, tops. I had more than that. In fifth grade or so I made friends with kids who would become the core of an amazing group of friends who helped fill my younger years with just so many fond memories. They put up with me in spite of a long, long list of idiosyncrasies and I thank them for it.

One of those idiosyncrasies was my music taste. This is something, I've found, that has carried on to adulthood. Why just a couple of weeks ago I was in a car with some country-music loving coworkers and thought it would be a good idea to introduce them to some highly political rap music followed by The Refused Party Program. (Lyrics: Refused party program, Refused party program, Refused party program. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!) It went poorly.

When I was 16, a person who I looked up to quite a bit at work told me that I was "an acquired taste." While that is, at the very best, a mixed compliment, I guess there's probably something to it. When I was a 90s kid, there were a handful of accepted music types to listen to: grunge (soft, unfiltered guitar during the verse, hard, crunchy and distorted during the chorus), rap, and pop. In addition there were metal and country, but remember that I said accepted music types.

In many of our backpacks, we held these giant CD binders filled with pages of plastic sleeves. Also we would carry a "compact" CD player and headphones. Maybe you could fit a school book in there if it was paperback. Maybe. Our backpacks were essentially mobile music stations with a light dusting of school supplies.

Like dogs sniffing each other's behinds, we would learn about one another by flipping through their music folder. Oh cool, here's your 70s section. Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd. All of this is approved by the governing body of cool kids. Very good, very good.

[Aside: do people my age realize that Nirvana is now as old to kids in high school as Led Zeppelin was to us? There are Nirvana kids in high schools and they are like the Led Zeppelin kids when you were a kid!!!! Want to feel old? Go for a run and then take your blood pressure pills.]

Oh man, I haven't heard of any of this, but it all looks very rebellious and super duper amateur. Like, was this album cover was drawn by a 15 year old? You must be one of those punk kids I hear about. Respect.

Ooh, a rap collection. Look at all those parental advisories! Your mom must not buy you CDs exclusively during Media Play clearance events and sit with you on the couch while she reads the lyrics. Interesting.

But what happened when you flipped through ol' Howie's folder? Well, so far so good. You've got your standards. Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots. Nice. The Cure? OK, that's... fine. But what's this? Nine Violent Femmes albums? Fourteen by Oingo Boingo? WHO ARE THE PET SHOP BOYS AND WHY IS THIS PINK.

Try getting your friends into Oingo Boingo. Start with "Little Girls." I'll wait.

My favorite music, the stuff I listened to when I was a kid and still listen to now that I'm adult, were all acquired tastes to me. I bought the album on a recommendation, didn't like it, realized that I'd invested $20 in it, listened to it again and again, and realized that it might be the best thing I've ever heard.

As a person, I don't think I'm the first-listen type. My whole life I've heard this story: "When I first met you, I thought that you hated me. I thought that you were very serious. Now I think you might have a mental illness, but like a fun one."

I'm a weird guy, it turns out. And I'm shy. It takes me a while to warm up, and I'm not for everybody, but I've been around long enough to sort of grudgingly accept that at least for a portion of the population, I'm good company. They just have to get to know me.

Did you know that literature is like that? You might pick up a book and say this is weird. Or it's boring. Or it's weird and it's boring. And if you've gotten this far in the blog there's a good chance you had those same opinions about me, but eventually you came around. Hopefully.

This is all a lead-in to tell you about a book I loved so much that I'm worried you won't read but that you should. The book is called Wolf Hall and it's by Hilary Mantel. You may have heard me raving about Mantel before. She's so good, you guys. And this book is such a monumental undertaking. Between reading it, I just loved looking at it on my nightstand.

It's about Thomas Cromwell, who went from being the abused son of a drunken blacksmith to the man behind the man (the second man in this case is Henry VIII) during the English Reformation. These are real people, and the beats of the history are the same, but the dialogue and scene-by-scene unfolding is imagined with just charming deftness by Mantel.

Her Cromwell is loyal, brilliant, kind, wise, and pretty funny. If you took out the intrigue and backdrop, you could read his rise as a self-help book on how to be influential, powerful, and the object of every widow in the kingdom's affection.

“But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.He has a perfect memory. He's physically imposing. A little mysterious.
And above all, he understands people:
You learn nothing about men by snubbing them and crushing their pride. You must ask them what it is they can do in this world, that they alone can do.
It's about England getting out from under the thumb of the Pope. About Anne Boleyn (a bit of a schemer, but so compelling), King Henry (charming and boyish and kind of a weiner), Thomas More (currently a canonical saint but also a renowned torturer in the name of religious piety). It's also about human beings.
Men say," Liz reaches for her scissors, "'I can't endure it when women cry'--just as people say, 'I can't endure this wet weather.' As if it were nothing to do with the men at all, the crying. Just one of those things that happen.
Oh my gosh, I just loved it.

Here are some quick notes if you read it. Folks on Goodreads, in between drooling a mixture of day-old Carl's Jr. Six-Dollar-Burger, gummy bears, and warm Diet Coke into their keyboards as they boil with vitriol, complain that it's hard to tell who's talking in a scene. It is at first, but you'll quickly realize that anytime "he" is talking, it's Cromwell. In other cases, the character will be called out by name. It's a stylistic choice that I guess I don't understand, but is fine. Maybe it's because, as Mantel points out, half the people in England are named Thomas and she doesn't want to wear out his name and have to buy him a new one.

Also, you'll probably have to refer to the lineage chart at the beginning a few times to keep track of all the Mary's, Henry's, and Anne's (as well as Thomas's). Folks have a bunch of titles, too. Like Thomas More is also the Lord Chancellor. You'll get used to it.

Also, oh my gosh, I love this book. Just give it a chance. It's a slow burn. Like Crybaby brand gumballs. You think at first, why am I doing this, but at the end it's so, so sweet. And you realize that the sweet in the middle of that gumball is only so sweet because of the sour at the beginning.